Anthony Rankin Wilson

Psychotherapy and the Earth

Forms and Transformations of Connectedness
Posted 13 August 2013 by Anthony Wilson | General

“Forms and Transformations of Connectedness”
Self Psychology As If The World Mattered:
Intersubjectivity and The-More-Than-Human
© Anthony Rankin Wilson


“With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, and they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal?s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects - not the Open, which is so
deep in animals? faces...”.
-- Rainer Maria Rilke

“...The great changes...will not come about by the force of reason alone or the influence of fact. Rather, they will come by way of psychological transformation. What the Earth requires will have to make itself felt within us as if it were our own most private desire.” -- Theodore Roszak

“We make no distinction between man and and nature are not like two opposite terms confronting each other...rather they are one and the same essential reality, the producer-product.” -- Deleuze and Guattari

The more-than-human world refers not only to biological organisms like fungi, frogs and humans, but includes “the surface of the planet and the portion of the atmosphere and the subsurface that is capable of supporting life. It gave rise to us; we did not give rise to it.” -- Wes Jackson

Environmental crisis refers to the current, unprecedented-in-scale, human-caused degradation of ecosystems. The current rash of symptoms include the mass extinction of species, rising biodiversity loss, and climate and ocean change. All of these symptoms are increasingly being seen as the historically predictable signs of collapse, not only of ecosystems, but also of our increasingly monocultured, connected, and technologically complex human societies.

A 38 year old female psychotherapy patient says at the beginning of a recent session: “I know it?s not very personal, but I want to talk about the news of the melting ice caps, and how that is freaking me out.” I notice the visceral quality of her distress, as well as my own thought-habits that trace meanings to material in the previous session and muse on the symbolic content of her statement. Is there a self that is anxiously melting? Is it a promising sign that our work may be effecting changes in stabilizing structures of pathological accommodation? Or is it a warning that a breakdown has occurred in our therapeutic connection resulting from a recent misattunement? Valid questions all. However, soon after, I note what I am NOT thinking. I needed to coax my habituated mind to include the notion that she may be speaking, and deeply feeling, her real concern about “the melting ice caps”.

I have just returned indoors to my writing desk after shoveling a heavy, rain-soaked, late February snowfall from the sidewalks around my home. As I was about to open the front door to re-enter the confines of my studio and this often arduous writing, something arrested me. An internal voice. “Wait. Don?t go in quite yet. You?ve not really been here in the out-of-doors. You?ve been dwelling inside your head, plotting the paper, getting the job of shoveling done. Before you return indoors, breathe the damp air. See the grey morning light spread upon the snow. Acknowledge the dripping, dark skeletons of the trees.” I listened. Stopped. And once again, it was a shock to this ecopaper- writing, skin-encapsulated self, just how capable that self is of this form of relatedness to the more-than-human world. My connectedness, encased and roundly muted, seemingly untouched by the familiar self-extended otherness of the vibrant morning atmosphere that is breathing me, as much as I am breathing it.


What follows is an invitation to open out the field of our consideration. As analysts and psychotherapists, naturally we assume the phrase “forms and transformations of connectedness” refers to the analytic relationship; one human encountering another human who is seeking their help. This is our professional raison d?etre. And it will remain so. We highly value the slow, intimate, creative unfolding of precise empathy, resilient safety, and cohesive narrative in the service of a depth understanding of symptom and the humble self transformations of our patients...and of our-selves along with them. However, I submit that we are called upon by our 21st century patients?, and the broader culture within which we practice, to lend our evolving analytic insights to The Great Work1 and a more-than-human world in crisis. I am speaking particularly about those clinical insights that are moving towards an approximation of nature?s designs and processes (biomimicry2). Heinz Kohut was “a pivotal transitional figure...”.3 in this embracing of post-Cartesian intersubjective sensibilities.

I am a child of the ?50?s. Though abundant time playing outdoors in river valleys and forested urban woodlots, and the year-after-year presence of pets, helped shape the contours of my later-in-life curiosity and concern for the more-than-human, I was an urban creature. Childhood was immersed in a thickening religious and post-war cultural milieu that increasingly placed humans upon the reified peak of the evolutionary pyramid. The natural world came to be increasingly related to and experienced as an object: an object in service of the ascendant human project of comfort and safety, technological progress, and limitless economic growth. This project was, in part, a species doing what a successful species does in moving to the top of the food chain. As eminent biologist Lynn Margulis reportedly said. “we?re unusually successful...of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.”4 It may be too, that our voracious evolutionary attempts to control the more-than-human have also been a compensatory reaction to the cumulative traumas of the overwhelming horror and helplessness of such events as the Plague, which killed 30 to 60% of Europe?s population in the 14th century; and countless wars, including the 20th century?s World Wars which killed between 60 and 100 million people. Post war, cumulative-cultural- PTSD eyes increasingly saw a forest as timber and a lake as a picture-postcard backdrop, outer inanimate “things” to be tamed and in service of the human project, rather than anything foundational to human existence and biological, psychological, and spiritual health.

As far back as 1960, when I was 10 years old and roaming the North Saskatchewan River Valley, analyst Harold Searles wrote “that in Freud?s own writings, as well as in those of other investigators, it is a rare thing to find explicit acknowledgement paid to the significance of the nonhuman environment in man?s psychological life.”5 Though he was to write again in 1972, “...the ecological crisis is the greatest threat mankind collectively has ever faced...”6, psychoanalysis has only recently begun to turn its? attention to the possibility that, in Searles words again, “...maturity involves a readiness to face the question of what is one?s position about this great portion - by far the greatest portion of one?s total environment...”.7 How DOES one think about and perceive “nature”? How IS connectedness to the more-than-human world experienced?

It was in 1991, when, in a session with a male patient8, the doors of my office metaphorically flew open, and the more-than-human blew in and whispered firmly in my ear: “Who IS the patient? You are operating in Cartesian skin-encapsulated mind, my friend. This patient?s potential mindless violation of the biosphere cannot be ignored. Even if your thoughts, fantasy, and feelings never enter a mutually reflective clinical process with him, if you ignore this disturbing moment in yourself, you will remain in thrall of the Cartesian. However thoroughly embracing you are of the burgeoning intersubjective paradigm, you would stoke the staunch denial, or better, disavowal (this was a psychologically-minded more-than-human voice to be sure!), of the fowling of your own nest on a global scale previously unknown. You would remain collusively outof- touch with the impacts this environmental degradation, and the spreading news of it, is having upon your patients.”

Let us now move to a brief survey of the forms of connectedness fostered by the Cartesian mind and so influential, since Freud, upon psychoanalytic theory and practice, including Self Psychology. As well, let us look at how Cartesian-mind has shaped how we have come to perceive, experience, and relate to the more-than-human world. Our 21st century patient?s are asking for this reflection. “The voice of the earth”9 may be asking to be heard.

Forms of Connectedness and the Cartesian Mind

Connected - “united, joined, or linked”.10

Paradoxically, for the Cartesian mind, connected implies the perspective of “selfenclosed isolation”.11 This mind views “the inner essence of the person existing in a state that is disconnected from all that sustains life.”12 As Stolorow, Atwood, and Orange have articulated, this myth of the isolated mind has not only had profound effects on the evolution of analytic theory and practice and continues to do so, but also is “pervasive in the culture of Western industrial societies”13

What are some other forms of Cartesian-connectedness that continue to haunt our analytic practices, and our perceptions and experience of the more-than-human world? This form of connectedness reifies self-sufficiency and denies, or disavows, our ultimate dependency upon the natural world while numbing our sense of “the unbearable embeddedness of being”14. Cartesian-connectedness relies upon the belief in, and subsequent perception of, a subject-object split and the resultant “contrast between inner and outer.”15 This may often result in clinicians and patients becoming “endlessly entangled in trying to determine where a particular reality lies, inside or outside, or where responsibility for a reaction, for a life pattern, or for some interpersonal disaster lies.”16 A similar entanglement is evident in environmental policy discussions and decisions. Fundamental issues such as the protection of biodiversity for present and future members of the earth?s biotic community, including humans, is often intentionally confused by “the science is not yet in” voices of vested interest. The perverse externalization of responsibility and effect, for example, ignores what has been called the sixth major extinction event of the last 540 million years, “the first to be caused by the activities of a single species.”17

This inside-outside binary is paralleled in the economic principle of externalities, where the environmental cost of a product (ie. oil) is not accounted for in its? market price. This economic principle reflects the Cartesian split between inner and outer where the waste of burning fossil fuels (ie. carbon dioxide, a negative externality) that contributes to dire consequences for human health and safety is not reflected in its? price at the pump. The Cartesian-fueled psychological defense of disavowal pervades the bizarre economic principle of externalities. “Reality” is tersely acknowledged with this defense but significance is minimized. This “more serious and intractable form of denial”18 is ever-present. It preserves the illusion of an inside “reality” where an anxious subjectivity dwells that acknowledges climate change; and an outside “reality” where climate-change (ie. increasing frequency and severity of heat waves, drought, wild fires, record rainfall and floods) is discounted and not important enough to warrant significantto- scale individual and collective action. It is beyond this Cartesian-connectedness to consider that what we do to the air, or water, we do to ourselves...that indeed, there is no “outside”. “We dismiss the effects of climate change as ?not here?, ?not now?, ?not me?, and ?not clear?.”19

The natural ecosystem processes of the planet are the fundamental template for a post-Cartesian mind. Nothing is “externalized” because there is nowhere for the products of a life-cycle to be externalized to. For example, a forest?s trees get bigger, they fall, and as they and other life forms grow and die, they rot to form an ever-thicker layer of humus in the soil causing the forest ecosystem?s “connectedness” to go up. And, “as this happens it evolves more ways of regulating itself and maintaining its stability.”20 This systemic form of relational connectedness, for forests and humans, is emergent. Interaction then is but “only one aspect of the development of emerging, organizing, and reorganizing psychological [for the human; biological for the forest] worlds.”21 Human and forest worlds “move through adaptive cycles of growth, collapse, regeneration, and again growth”.22 This conception lies outside the bounds of a “Cartesian mind [that] craves clarity and distinctness”23 and the illusory linear certainties of cause-effect. In intersubjective contrast, cultural ecologist David Abram writes that “Descartes? segregation of the mind from the body...was but a means to a grander end; it authorized the modern mind to reflect upon the material world as though it were not a part of that world - [looking] upon nature from a cool, detached position ostensibly outside of that nature.”24 The same could be said of the analytic encounter where the shared, emergent, intersubjective vitality of the moments of meeting, or failures to meet, becomes the evolving organizing principle of an analysis or psychotherapy. This contrasts with the idea of an isolated, skin-encapsulated self with static mental contents that can be moved around within an interior space, or projected out onto, or into, an others? similarly encased self.

On the other hand, this representational Cartesian-theorizing which has been so fundamental to Psychoanalysis and Self Psychology, has fostered our psychological explorations, and has been a necessary bridge towards the systemic and intersubjective experiential worlds approach. This is parallel to the achievements of the scientific method, and of industrialization and technological innovation, that have enabled differentiating and specialized advances, for example, in human medical care. However, just as the unnecessary illusions of the Cartesian mind are becoming increasingly exposed and transformed within maturing analytic theories, so are the Cartesian illusions in Western industrialized societies and the true costs of our “successes”.

Poignantly pertinent to the exposure of our culturally held illusions, I quote Abrams at length: “The era of human arrogance is at an end; the age of consequences is upon us. The presumption that mind was exclusively a human property exemplified the very arrogance that has now brought the current biosphere to the very brink...It led us to take the atmosphere entirely for granted, treating what was once known as the most mysterious and sacred dimension of life (called Sila, the wind-mind of the world, by the Inuit;...) a conveniently invisible dumpsite for the toxic by-products of industrial civilization. The resulting torsions within the planetary climate are at last forcing humankind out of its self-enclosed oblivion - a dynamic spoken of in psychoanalysis as the return of the repressed....Only through the extremity of the weather are we brought to notice the uncanny power and presence of the unseen medium, and so compelled to remember our thorough immersion with the life of this breathing planet. Only thus are we brought to realize that our vaunted human intelligence is as nothing unless it?s allied with the round intelligence of the animate earth.”25

A female patient in her early 60?s tells me of a walk in the winter country north of her city home. She and her partner came across the large, unmistakeable snow tracks of a moose - two large hoofed toes and two smaller toes. She looked at me with the surprise of discovery in her eyes, and a “where have I been?” tone to her voice, and said, “they have lives too...they?re out there...”. In listening to her I thought of a Cartesian mind possibly dissolving into the realization that there is more to the world than the “in-here” solipsism of the isolated human self; and that there are other creatures “out-there” who live sentient lives that go on being after we have left them to their shrinking habitats. I said to her, “it?s amazing to acknowledge this, isn?t it?”, attempting to semantically match her emotional tone without much of my own personal elaboration. As our eyes met, she asked, “you think so too?” She seemed doubly surprised that her moving experience with the wildness of moose tracks had been heard, reflected, and not diminished. Perhaps the privileging thrall of a psychology that has for so long ignored the multiple significances for human existence of the more-than-human had been briefly lifted.

Next, we move to a limited review of what the transformations of Cartesian to post- Cartesian-connectedness might look like: both for the increasingly contextualized theories of Self Psychology, Relational Psychoanalysis, and the Intersubjectivists; and, for the environmentally-minded analyst and psychotherapist practicing in a world of environmental crisis.


Transformation - “a change in form, appearance, nature, or character...especially a radical one.” 26

The change from the limited perceptive capacities and subsequent isolating experiencing of the Cartesian-mind, to the contextually embedded perceptiveness and experience of the post-Cartesian mind, is indeed “a radical one.” I have clinically experienced this over the years through the slow breaching of my theoretical fortresses of objectivism and the subsequent “...confusion, ambiguity, and even anxiety...when those assumptions are suspended...”.27 Stolorow, Atwood, and Orange describe this further: “Suddenly, the mind and the stable external world pictured as surrounding it lose their status as absolutes, and psychoanalytic observation and theory, now concerned solely with experience and its organization, no longer appear to be anchored in anything solidly real.”28 This clinical experience of dissolving objectivism is paralleled in my transforming perceptions and experiences of the more-than-human world. Increasingly it is no longer so clear where I-in-here and world-out-there begin and end. This embedded, reciprocal consciousness has been increasingly substantiated by science so has gained some intellectual heft. However, the personal transition to an experience of this consciousness is sometimes laced with anxiety where I “no longer appear to be anchored in anything solidly real.”

The more-than-human world is primarily out there for my use and enjoyment, is it not? However, when I ask how significantly my use and enjoyment is infringing on the more-than-human?s right to exist and enjoy sentient going-on-being, then the hard-won bequeathed and privileged standing of my “real” Cartesian world begins to teeter. I lose the compass of my identities as deservedly privileged species; as consumer; and as the only miracle of creation with the capacity for sentience, consciousness, and perception.

Crucial to this transformation of connectedness is the intersubjective perspective that “Thinking systemically requires that personal experience be understood as world...not just as interaction. The very concept of interaction needs redefinition as only one aspect of the development of emerging, organizing, and reorganizing worlds....A psychological or experiential world is relationally complex, chaotic, systemic, and emergent.”29 When my patient spoke about the “melting ice caps”, to only relate to this as a symbolic representation of a fragmenting self structure, or thawing pathological accommodation, or as a signal that something had gone wrong in the field between us, all or none of which may be true, would be to restrict “world” to the world of human interaction and relationship, while excluding the more-than-human. This may be a clinical perspective far to narrow in these times of environmental crisis. This patient?s possible real fear and concern for the implications of melting ice caps may perhaps be understood as one human?s resonant connectedness with, and expression of, the voice of the earth.

Another transformation of connectedness is revealed in the post-Cartesian concept of a psychological world that “envisions a kind of double inhabiting...A knower cannot be an item in the world. Instead, the experiential world seems to be both inhabited by and inhabiting of the human being. People live in worlds, and worlds live in people.”30 I inhabit the process as analytic psychotherapist and it inhabits me. I inhabit the morethan- human world and indeed, it inhabits me. As this transformed view promotes a clinician?s participatory consciousness, it also advances the ecosystemic view that “ would make much more sense for our sciences to study the world from our experienced place within this world - using our experiments to discern how we might establish a more sustaining relationship with a particular species, or with a particular wetland or forest, rather than trying to figure out just how that species or wetland works in itself, as though we were somehow not participant in its processes.”31

And finally, “the most striking shift comes in the rejection of ?clear and distinct ideas? in favor of the complexity, nonlinearity, more-or-less quality, and general fallibilism of systems thinking. The experiential world can only fleetingly be the linear world of logic and reason....Analysts security will come instead from the sense that they can rely on their emotional contexts enough to tolerate and explore with curiosity the endlessly open questions.”32 Again, not only with our patients could this shift promote a resilient, felt sense of connectedness, but it may also advance a deepening curiosity, respect and concern for the infinitely complex ecosystems within which we dwell. The analyst?s capacity to “tolerate and explore with curiosity the endlessly open questions” regarding patient?s environmental crisis narratives, whether they concern the melting ice caps or changing local weather patterns, will be increasingly tested in times to come.

In reference to climate change, recognizing another patient?s statement, “we?re all fucked, anyway”, as a possible sign of overwhelming anxiety and a defensive attempt to discount the future (choosing short term gain despite potential self-destructive future consequence), is not an insignificant clarity, for the patient, for the analyst, and for the earth. Through embracing an intersubjective, post-Cartesian sensibility we inevitably open out the field of our consideration to the more-than-human world, and the various symptoms of our current environmental predicament.


We have explored how Cartesian-mind has contributed to forms of connectedness that objectify and distance from the other, human and more-than-human, while denying or disavowing a fundamental interdependence with the other, human and more-thanhuman. I hope this exploration will encourage clinicians to hear the call to lend our evolving psychological reflections and insights to much needed multi-disciplinary collaborations. Such roundtables are necessary for our professions and society to deconstruct Cartesian-mind-practices while promoting a sustainable future for the human and more-than-human.

And, my hope is that explorations of the systemic, post-Cartesian intersubjective mind will serve our clinical efforts to become more embodiedly present with our 21st century patients, and therefore more empathic with their often masked and confused emotional concerns regarding the environmental crisis.

They will increasingly bring us their guilt ie. “We deserved Hurricane Sandy because of our wanton, consumptive ways...”33. They will increasingly bring us their anger about the perceived unfairness of an inherited degraded natural world. They will increasingly bring us their fear and overwhelm, often shrouded in the cloak of apathy. They will increasingly bring us their grief about losing treasured landscapes, hard-won identities and life styles, and a stable vision of the future. They will increasingly bring us “aspects of obliterative drinking and dissociative materialism”, as Susan Bodnar suggests, in what may be “enactments of a changing relationship between people and their ecosystems.”34 They will increasingly bring us the feeling of “no longer appear[ing] to be anchored in anything solidly real” as the truths and consequences of our intersubjective embeddedness in the more-than-human world become starkly evident through the symptoms of the crisis, like the extreme weather of climate change, or the news about those symptoms.


A transformed connectedness to the more-than-human could engender a “behavioral plasticity of the highest order -- because we would be pushing against biological nature itself”.35 Such a transformed connectedness extends our circle of empathy to include the animate earth and future generations of life and could be a vital step in enabling a novel, species-wide refusal to “wipe itself out”. But without the full acknowledgement of our hard wired, short-term, narcissistic tendencies to forget the past and sacrifice the future for the present, this empathy will not sustain. This is a mighty task without precedent. More and more it is being acknowledged that the biggest challenge humans face is not solely what is happening in the world of melting icecaps and rising sea levels, but what is going on inside the human mind...and the human heart.


1 Berry, T., The Great Work, Bell Tower, 1999.
2 Benyus, J.M., Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, William Morrow, 1997.
3 Stolorow, R.D., Atwood, G.E., Orange, D.M., Worlds of Experience: Interweaving Philosophical and Clinical Dimensions in Psychoanalysis, Basic Books, 2002, p. 67.
4 Mann, C.C., State of the Species: Does Success Spell Doom for Homo Sapiens, Orion Magazine, Nov./Dec. 2012.
5 Searles, H., The Nonhuman Environment in Normal Development and in Schizophrenia, International Universities Press, 1960, p. 5.
6 Searles, H., Countertransference and Related Subjects, International Universities Press, 1979 (article Unconscious Processes in Relation to the Environmental Crisis first published in Psychoanalytic Review in 1972), p. 228.
7 Searles, The Nonhuman Environment..., p. 101.
8 Wilson, A.R., Who IS the Patient? Psychoanlysis, Ecopsychology, and The Environmental Crisis: Conceptual and Clinical Implications, unpublished paper, 2011.
9 Roszak, T., The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Simon and Schuster, 1992.
10, 2013.
11 Stolorow, Atwood, Orange, Worlds of Experience...p. 21.
12 ibid., p. 22.
13 ibid., p. 22.
14 ibid., p. 3.
15 ibid., p. 25.
16 ibid., p. 25.
17 Dodds, J., Psychoanalysis and Ecology At the Edge of Chaos: Complexity Theory, Deleuze/Guattari and Psychoanalysis for a Climate in Crisis, Routledge, 2011, p. 4.
18 Weintrobe, S. ed., Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Routledge, 2013, p. 7.
19 Rapley, C., in US scientists in fresh alert over effects of global warming (R. McKie, science editor), the Guardian/The Observer, January 12, 2013.
20 Homer-Dixon, Thomas, Our Panarchic Future, in World Watch, Volume 22, Number 2, March/April, 2009, p. 8.
21 Stolorow, Atwood, Orange, Worlds of Experience..., p. 33.
22 Homer-Dixon, Our Panarchic Future..., p. 8.
23 Stolorow, Atwood, Orange, Worlds of Experience..., p. 26.
24 Abram, D., Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, Pantheon Books, 2010, p. 108.
25 Abram, D., Today, as earth shivers into a fever..., in Adbusters, Journal of the Mental Environment, The Big Ideas of 2012.
26, 2013.
27 Stolorow, Atwood, Orange, Worlds of Experience..., p. 3.
28 ibid., p. 3.
29 ibid., pp. 33-34.
30 ibid., p. 34.
31 Jensen, D., How Shall I Live My Life? On Liberating the Earth From Civilization, PM Press, 2008, p. 217.
32 Stolorow, Atwood, Orange, Worlds of Experience..., p. 36.
33 Klein, M., Are Our Emotions Preventing Us From Taking Action on Climate Change?, AlterNet, January 2, 2013. 34 Bodnar, S., Wasted and Bombed: Clinical Enactments of a Changing Relationship to the Earth, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 18, 2008, p. 484.
35 Mann C.C., State of the Species...Orion Magazine, Nov./Dec. 2012.

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